Africa is home to 1.2 billion people. That compares with a population of just 500 million in North America. In fact, the populations of North America and the region of eastern Africa alone are not dissimilar. What is dissimilar is their projected growth rate. The population of Africa is exploding. By 2060, it will double. Nigeria, which currently has a population of 185 million people, will more than double in just 30 years, to 400 million.
Compare that to the ageing, shrinking populations of many developed countries, including in Europe, and the scale of the African opportunity becomes clear.
It is a market that presents challenges too, not least the fact that in Ireland, the narrative regarding Africa too often revolves around bad news stories – such as emergency appeals arising from famine or cataclysmic weather events.
Though such events are rightly demanding of our attention, they can sometimes obscure the good news stories that are also evident in Africa, in abundance.
They include the fact that Africa’s middle class accounts for up to 15pc of its population, and that share is growing. They also obscure the fact that countries such as Ethiopia are showing some of the greatest economic growth figures anywhere, at up to 8pc.
Population growth in Africa is leading to increased urbanisation too, always a hotbed for innovation. Today, there are more cities with populations of more than a million people in Africa than there are in the US.
There is great wealth. Africa is rich in minerals, the richest of all continents.
Whereas, traditionally, this wealth was too often simply shipped out, without its countries of origin benefiting from added-value processes, that too is changing fast.
So is the traditional paucity of intra-African trade. Some 62pc of Europe’s GDP comes from intra-European trade – that is, European countries buying from and selling to one another. The figure for intra-African trade is just 16pc. It is a figure set to grow. As it does, it will drive further growth across the continent, enabling the value of that trade to stay in Africa and not be lost to third parties.
In recognition of all these positive indicators, Enterprise Ireland has added to its South African presence on the continent by opening offices in Nigeria and Kenya too.
Each offers opportunities for Irish companies in sectors such as fintech.
These are countries with strong, highly regulated banking sectors, which are not just early adopters of modern technology, but innovators of it. Mobile money transfer was invented in Kenya, through M-Pesa, long before smartphones came into existence.
Africa’s growing middle class has led to demand for better medical facilities and, consequently, opportunities for Ireland’s life sciences companies.
Construction is another area of opportunity, as major infrastructure projects are increasingly required.
It is a particularly fertile market for education services. Some 400,000 African students travel overseas for undergraduate and postgraduate education each year, but just 450 come to Ireland.
Education is another sector in which Ireland excels, but just as there is poor awareness of Africa in Ireland, there is poor awareness of Ireland in Africa.
Showcasing Ireland’s expertise in everything from education to technology is in part why last week’s trade mission was so important.
As well as the millions of euro worth of deals signed during the week, it was a good way to say to those Irish businesses now looking to diversify their markets, especially in light of Brexit: ‘Look to Africa.’
There, they will find massive and growing markets that are largely English-speaking and which present no major timezone differences.
For so long, Irish business people have crossed over Africa to get to other markets. Now is the time to land there.
Fred Klinkenberg is Enterprise Ireland’s country manager, South Africa, based in Cape Town
Sunday Indo Business